Skip to comments.Anselm of Canterbury
Posted on 09/02/2002 4:38:20 PM PDT by JMJ333
Anselm's slender work, radiant and perfectly balanced, realises in the purest form the concerns of theological aesthetics. His reason is monastic, like that of the Areopagite, but it is Benedictine, and that means both communal and dialogic at the same time. Its monastic form is contemplative, beholding, transparent; its Benedictine content is manifest in the consciousness of freedom and in a form of life stamped by freedom.
These yield a common fruit in the acme of Christian aesthetics. Anselm contemplates the highest rectitude (rectitudo) of the divine revelation in creation and redemption; he discerns its truth from the harmony, from the faultless proportions, from the way in which it must be so (necessitas) something at once dependent on the utmost freedom and manifesting the utmost freedom, and this vision reveals to him absolute beauty: God's beauty in the freely fashioned form of the world. When he asks by what reason or necessity God was made man (qua ratione vel necessitate Deus homo factus est), the question appears to him 'very difficult, but in its solution it is intelligible to all and delightful both on account of its usefulness and on account of the beauty of the reason (rationis pulchritudinem).'
This beauty appears to the one who beholds it so ineffable (inenarrabilis pulchritudem) that he hardly dares attempt its human imitation; the master does not want to accede to Boso's pressing requests, 'for the subject matter is not only precious, but is fair with a reason (speciosa ratione) above human understanding, just as it has to do with him who is "beautiful above the sons of men". I am always indignant with poor artists when I see our Lord himself painted with an ugly form, and I am afraid that I may find myself in the same position if I dare to set out such a beautiful theme in rude and contemptible language."
However, the problem of expression remains secondary to the problem of thought: the decisive thing about this monastic contemplation is that it is not ecstasy, nor feeling, but contemplative reason (rationis contemplatio), contemplation albeit of a reason on a pilgrimage of longing, between earthly faith and eternal vision (meditetur ... esuriat ... desideret tota substantia mea). It is the contemplation, above all, of a praying reason which only hopes to find insight in dialogue with the eternal truth, and therefore ever again passes over from the form of meditation to that of prayer.
Anselm's work has two sides: form and content, method and subject matter; and if both exist in tension with one another, too little attention is usually paid to their unity and their mutual interdependence. The method is that of rationes necessariae; it appears as a prevalent philosophical method, and this presupposes that the subject matter is to a significant degree also philosophical.
In spite of this the subject matter is the free dealings of the free God with a mankind freely created and brought anew into freedom by Christ, that is, a predominantly theological subject matter, which will be shown to be reflected in the method. The 'philosophical' meditation is unfolded predominantly in the first two works, the Monologion and the Proslogion, while the theological questions concerning the freedom of God, of the angels, and of men, their presuppositions, conditions and their dramatic outworking, are the concern of all the following systematic works: On the Freedom of the Will, On the Fall of the Devil, Why God Became Man, On the Virginal Conception and Original Sin, On the Concord between the Foreknowledge, Predestination and Grace of God and the Freedom of the Will. The polemic against Roscelin (Letter on the Incarnation of the Word), the discussion with the Greeks at the Council of Bari (1098), On the Procession of the Holy Spirit, overarch the problem of freedom at the level of the trinitarian relations, while the wonderful Prayers and Meditations bestow on it the indispensable ecclesiological and existential form. Although, then, the method and subject matter completely interpenetrate one another, we may, beginning with considerations of method, treat them one after another, because in this way what is peculiar to Anselm, even over against his great master, Augustine, comes into prominence....
...Creation, and even more the order of salvation, is radiant in the order of its beauty as the revelation of God's freedom and therefore of the wholly other and infinite blessedness which belongs to the realm of the divine. Therefore the joy communicated through the grace of God not only stands in no relation to human effort or to human joy in discovery, but in neither does the joy which is granted through God's grace in this life of faith stand in any relation to the promised joy of the eternal vision face-to-face, in which the shared joy of all redeemed and loving creatures will be fulfilled at the same time.
Henri de Lubac has shown that the line of the Proslogion is thus deeply broken: the intellectual satisfaction at the discovery of the proof of God's existence is not at all the joy in God promised by Christ: the light of truth which streams forth from God does not bestow the vision face-to-face, and therefore the book ends with faith's reflection on the eschatological joy, in which alone the full satisfaction and the full overwhelming by the eternal blessedness of God will take place. The model of heavenly joy also makes clear what the vision face-to-face can mean for Anselm: nothing other and nothing less than the final and most positive fulfilment of the comprehendit incomprehensibile esse.
'O human heart, 0 needy heart, 0 heart experienced in suffering, indeed overwhelmed by suffering, how greatly would you rejoice if you abounded in all these things! Ask your innermost soul whether it could comprehend its joy in its so great blessedness? But surely if someone else whom you loved in every respect as yourself possessed that same blessedness, you joy would be doubled, for you would rejoice as much for him as for yourself.'
But there are not just two or three but innumerable souls, 'no one of whom will love another less than itself, and each will rejoice for every other as for itself. If, then, the heart of man will scarcely be able to comprehend the joy that will belong to it from so great a good, how will it find space for so many and such great joys?'
And because each one will love God and God's own happiness infinitely more than itself and than the others, it is clear 'that their whole heart, their whole mind, their whole soul, will not suffice for the grandeur of this love'. Therefore, deduces Anselm, the joy of God will not enter into the heart, but the hearts of the blessed will enter into the ever-greater joy of God: intra in gaudium Domini tui. . Meanwhile there remains, rising up in a great wave to meet overwhelming joy, the greater longing and hope, the thirst of love for the stilling of love's longing.
And then there comes a final thought. The joy of the aesthetic reason, which contemplates the harmony of God's work of salvation, is founded on the suffering of the Son of God. This casts a shadow over the whole theological aesthetic, at least so long as it is the aesthetic of faith, of the mortal life.
'But Thou, 0 Lord, Thou, that I might live, hast taken death upon thyself. How can I rejoice at my freedom, which would not be were it not for thy chains? How can I be thankful for my salvation, which would not have been except for thy sorrows? How can I rejoice at my life, which would not have been except for thy death? Or should I rejoice at those things which thou hast suffered, and at the cruelty of those who did these things to thee, for unless they had done them ... this my good would not have been? Or if I grieve for those things, how can I rejoice for these things which would not have been, if those had not been?"
In this reversal, which explodes every perceptible proportion and finally casts the one who beholds together with his joy out of himself into the ever-greater love of God, there lies the over-whelming nature of Christian joy, which here can no longer be in any wise a human achievement, but which, because in spite of all it is offered, is given in grace as Christ's Easter gift....
...This furthur sheds light on the central concept of debere. God is simply free; he owes no man anything. The redemption of the sinner by Christ is not a ransom, as if the devil had any rights over man which he could assert against God. Not the least necessity saddles God's freedom if he decides freely (sponte) to save lost mankind. And the whole obedience of the incarnate Son depends entirely on the spontaneity of his love and simply unfolds the inner necessities of this free love, in including the very mystery of Gethsemane, the heavy bearing of the guilt of the world and the death.
The whole trinitarian mystery between the Father and the Son -- that the Son obeys really and to the end, and on the other side that the Father compels nothing but allows the Son's way of sacrifice however one contemplates it, is such a mystery of spontaneous, unforced love.
And just this absolute, because divine, spontaneity in the sacrifice of the Son determines its utmost costliness, which outweighs infinitely all the guilt of the world. The sacrifice consists, however, in the fact that God of his free love really enters worldly destiny, really humbles himself to be included in the lineage of Adam, in that he becomes the son of Mary, and yet thereby, because all depends on freedom, does not fall under the sway of Adam, as did all the others who are included in his seed as members of his lineage.
This assumption of worldly necessities into the free will of God which is not inwardly affected by them, that is, the assumption of worldly necessities into the necessities of intra-divine love, now raises the question: how far is God's plan of creation affected by the sin brought about by man's free will? If God owes nothing to any creature, does he owe it to himself, in view of his responsibility for the consequences of the world he has undertaken, to intervene and redeem, and indeed in just such a manner as is demanded by the linking of the necessities of the world order with those of his divine freedom?
Man has violated God's glory in that 'he has taken away from God whatever he has planned to make out of human nature.' 'For the wisdom of the artist is praised and declared according to the success of his work. As human nature, then, the precious work of God, on account of which he is to be glorified, diminishes or soils itself, so does it by its own fault dishonour God. There has then been withheld (subtrahitur) from God what is 'justly owed' him.
But this withholding of honor must first be made good in the right measure: 'When the creature wills what it ought to will, it honors God -- not because it bestows something on him, but because it willingly submits itself to God's will and direction, and keeps its own place in the universe of things, and maintains the beauty of that same universe, as far as in it lies.'
But if it does not do this, then it 'disturbs the universitatis ordinem et pulchritudinem, as far as lies in it, although of course it cannot injure or diminish the power and dignity of God.' For, Anselm continues in the working out of an Augustinian meditation, the beauty of the world-order and therefore the glory of God are in any case intact, because God's distributive justice sees to it that order is preserved even in the event of an insurrection, so that no ex violate ordinis pulchritudine deformitas can develop; as little as any creature can escape any part of the canopy of heaven, except by approaching it at another point.'
However, this aesthetic justification of evil, which has eschatological significance for Augustine, has only a limited place in Anselm's scheme of thought, and he will attempt to pass beyond it from various directions. The reflections immediately following on the 'perfect number' of the elect, that is, of the eschatological civitas Dei with its constitution of angels and men, attempt to take him beyond Augustine in a subtle chain of reasoning: if the purpose in of the elect human beings were to fill up the number of the fallen angels, then each one of them would have to rejoice over the fall of the angel whose place he was taking -- but this would be unbearable in Christian terms. So the full number of the angels can in no way have made up the full, eschatological number of the elect, and men were elected for their own sake and not simply as stop-gaps; and further, the material creation is not simply a replacement for the spiritual, but was originally created with a view to the perfected cosmos, which should consist of both spirit and matter.'
So Anselm does not stop, in what concerns the injured honour of God, at a consideration of the ordo congruus universitatis rerum: no matter how intact God's honour remains because of his punitive Justice, his love still suffers loss which dishonours it and which must ultimately be made good. The insubordinate will deprives God of his own most proper good: ipsi Deo aufert quod proprie et singulariter debet habere.
And as all the angels and just men, as the whole civitas Dei and God himself are grateful (gratiosi) to the lover who helps to build up the city of God, so contrariwise are they all wounded by the fact that the wicked banish (extorres) themselves from the holy city.
'Just as any man sorrows and mourns if he in any way loses what he has acquired for his needs and his advancement, so, as it were, does God sorrow and mourn too, when he sees how man, whom he created for himself, has been abducted by the devil and is to be lost to him for ever. So indeed are the damned designated lost, because they are lost to God, for whose kingdom and glorification they were created.'
And so the tender thought can find expression, that the just man confers a benefit on God himself (beneficium praestabit), is in a certain way profitable to him (quadam rations prodesse videtur), that God himself is grateful to the lover for his love (Deus ei scit gratias).
Love indeed is conceivable only as a mutual occurrence, and that rectitudo, which Anselm erected into the supreme concept embracing the whole of logic, ethics and aesthetics, ends in this mutuality: 'God must be loved... from rectitude (rectitudine), because he gives us everything that we have, even our very being. And so must we love him all the more than ourselves, the greater he is who gave himself for us and himself wills to keep us for himself.'
So much may lead us to suspect, indeed to see, that Anselm's doctrine of redemption, his so-called doctrine of satisfaction, will have about it nothing of the juristic. On the contrary, he is at pains to defend himself against any idea of a God of justice, who would so delight in or stand in need of the blood of the innocent that apart from his death he would not pardon the guilty.
But this would be the clear implication if God were to let himself be reconciled through the sacrifice of his Son in such a way that he 'reckoned' the merit of this death to the guilty and therefore let them off their punishment.
It is not a matter of reckoning, but of inner, ontological union: no one will willingly add a blemished pearl to his treasure. If God were therefore to forgive man, because man, in the powerlessness he brought on himself by his sin, cannot pay his debt, 'surely that is to say that God remits what he cannot get; but it is mockery to ascribe such mercy to God'; and besides, man would be in heaven eternally one who could not pay and therefore one who is needy (egens) and thus deprived of blessedness.
'Therefore Anselm used to say, to the astonishment of many, that he would prefer to be free from sin and to bear hell innocently than to go to the kingdom of heaven polluted with the stain of sin.' (Eadmer, Vita II: 22)
The moment of 'rectitude' in the Christian explanation lies therefore not so much abstractly in the fact that guilt must be expiated, that for an infinite guilt an infinitely valuable penance must be made, as in the fact that it only happens justly (juste), when man, on whose side the guilt lies, can pay for himself, which means on a deeper level: 'when of himself he rises and again lifts himself up.'
If the accent were placed only on the divinity of the Son, then the whole would remain an inner-trinitarian concern, and man, who is meant to be the object of the whole business, would remain outside. But the accent is placed on the covenant between God and man and on the obligation God has placed on himself by his decision that man should remain an authentic partner. That is the undertaking of grace, which 'he undertook for our sake and not for his own, since he is in need of nothing. For what man was going to do was not concealed from him when he made him, but despite this, in creating man of his own goodness, he freely bound himself, as it were (sponte se ... quasi obligavit), to complete the good work once begun.'
For this reason nothing less costly is required than a God-man as redeemer -- man had indeed to become free for the covenant with God, that is, free for absolute freedom. A merely sinless man would not have sufficed here, for 'if any other person had redeemed man from eternal death, man would rightly be reckoned eternally as his servant. But in that case man would in no sense have been restored to the dignity he would have had if he had not sinned, that is, to be the servant of God alone, and equal in everything to the good angels.' Christ is not an (Arian) instance of mediation, but rather the effectiveness of the covenant itself (pacti efficacia"); on him, therefore, the whole human race founded in Adam can converge as its center.
On the level of debt (debere), the reckoning cannot be settled, and therefore Anselm's theory cannot be understood juristically. For in what way is man not 'indebted' to God? 'When you pay what you owe to God, even if you have not sinned, you must not count this as part of the debt you owe for sin'; the highest exertion of love would be demanded to meet God's covenantal promise, and in this highest exertion it would always have to be weighed 'that you do not possess what you give of yourself, but from him whose servants both you and he to whom you give are.... As for obedience, what do you give to God that you do not owe him, to whose command you owe all that you are and have and can do?'
From this point it becomes only negatively clear that the freedom of the sinner, despoiled as it is of its capacity to act, restores to God nothing of what he owes him -- but has even Christ in his work of redemption not simply done what was owing? For if his work was well-pleasing to God, then 'he had to do what was better, especially since the creature owes to God all that it is and knows and can do.'
The answer to this can only be to point to the impetus of ever-greater love, how, beyond all calculable proportions, it is carried towards the ever-greater God...
...As Anselm puts down his roots everywhere in the manifest almightiness of love, which stands open and is approachable in the perfection of the analogia libertatis, so in his letters he draws his correspondent ever again into this concordia of love, which, overcoming all distance, makes him present to the beloved: nostrarum conscii sumus conscientiarum de invicem.
There is a strange logic of fate in the fact that the same man, who had to defend Christian freedom against all the gloomy clouds of an unbiblical doctrine of foreknowledge, predestination and original sin, had to spend his best efforts in struggle for the freedom of the Church in the English investiture controversy. For this reason it is important that, in all his unswerving and crystal-clear loyalty to the Holy See, he always saw the office and the concordia of the Mystical Body, the objective and subjective holiness of the Church in a perfected unity.
The Church is for Anselm essentially the Bride, who through the new marriage-bond with Christ is chosen and enabled for the freedom of love. 'God loves nothing in this world more than the freedom of his Church. And those [kings] who would rather control it than further it are doubtless to be handed over as opponents of God. God wills to have his bride free, and not as a hand-maid. Behold this queen whom he has been pleased to choose from out of the world as his bride. Her he calls "beautiful" and "friend" and "dove". If concordia characterises the uncompelled freedom within the Church, Anselm has no other word to characterise the relationship between Church and state: the king is advocate, defensor, but in no way dominator of the Church; over both there rules uniquely the free God.
The older and the more experienced Anselm becomes, the more the accent on aesthetic reason of his early works (Monologion and Proslogion) with their, as it were, immediate apprehension of theological necessities, shifts to the defence of Christian freedom--in the individual and the Church--from whose unfathomable glory all necessities are derived. Necessity is reduced more and more to a contradictory proposition, according to which the law of freedom is necessary, in so far as it is and cannot not be. To the same degree the perspectives are veiled in the eternal truth: what we see is only a reflection: 'as we are aware of the sun through its rays before we see it unveiled, so we are aware of God from the reflection (speculatio) of our reason: if we discover anything true in the light of truth, then we are aware at the same time of him by recognition and love in faith and hope. In the future we shall see him face to face.'
So at the last there remains a yearning longing for glory, for the unveiled radiance of the Lord:
'He whose aim in serving is directed towards the recovery of the kingdom of eternal life strives to stick to God through thick and thin, and with unshakeable perserverance to place his whole trust im him.... Strong in patience, he rejoices in all things and says with the Psalmist: Magna est gloria Domini. This glory, even in this earthly pilgrimage, he has a taste of, he savors it; and as he savors he desires it; and with great desire he salutes it while yet far off. Thus he is supported by the hope of attaining it, and consoled by it in the midst of all earthly dangers, and he sings with great joy: Magna est gloria Domini.'
The final thing here below is not vision, but being seen: Johannes, certe vides, vides me. Ergo vide me, Domine, vides me noscendo, vide me miserando. Vides et scis, vide ut sciam.' (John, you behold certainly, you behold me. Therefore behold me, Lord; you behold me by knowing me, behold me by having mercy on me. You behold and you know, behold that I may know--Prayer XII: to St John).
O, Lord, through your Son you command us, no, you counsel us to ask, and you promise that you will hear us so that our joy may be complete. Give me then what you promise to give through your Truth. You, O God, are faithful; grant that I may receive my request, so that my joy may be complete.
- Saint Anselm
St. Anselm is wonderful. The most exalted mysticism on one hand - and on the other, a full awareness of its ecclesial and even political implications. Thanks for posting more great readings from von Balthasar!
BTTT on Optional Feast of St. Anselm, 04-21-05.